“The worst journey in the world”: The Arctic convoys of the Second World War

As a BBC documentary airs on the Second World War Arctic convoys, GH Bennett considers whether their achievements were worth the dangers they faced

Allied convoy PQ 17 is attacked by a German torpedo aircraft on its way across the Arctic Ocean, c1942. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

On Christmas Eve 1942 the crew of the fleet destroyer HMS Obdurate were hanging Christmas decorations in the anchorage at Seidisfjord in Iceland. Since commissioning in September they had been involved in operations inside the Arctic Circle, travelling to north Russia and providing distant cover for convoy QP15 as it made its way slowly through the enemy-infested waters. As the crew of HMS Obdurate settled down to make Christmas as best they could, the captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker to announce that at 23.00 hours they would depart to reinforce the escort of convoy JW51B bound for Russia. Good humour gave way to gloom as the crew cleared for sea, wondering at the dangers that lay ahead of them on a route that Churchill would label “the worst journey in the world”.

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